The good/evil number line

During the last presidential election (some of you may remember it) occasional memes floated through social media making pronouncements to the effect that choosing the lesser of two evils (e.g. Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump in these memes’ cases) is still choosing evil.  These memes often came from first hopeful, then frustrated, Bernie Sanders supporters, but it’s a notion that’s by no means confined to such groups.  Ideologues of all stripes, from the religious, to the political, to the social-scientific and beyond, fall prey to the classic mental fallacy of the false dichotomy—the notion that the world is divided into two absolute, opposite natures, and that if their own ideas are pure and good (nearly everyone, on all sides, seems to believe this of themselves), then any choice other than the pure realization of their ideas in all forms is somehow a descent into evil.  Many people implicitly believe that even to choose the “lesser of two evils” is somehow to commit a moral betrayal that can be even worse than simply choosing evil for its own sake.

I hope to explode this notion as the destructive claptrap that it is. Continue reading “The good/evil number line”

Remember the reason for the season

As we in the United States prepare to celebrate the 4th of July, also known as Independence Day, I want to remind my readers to think about the real reason behind the holiday.  This has a bit of the character of a devout Christian enjoining everyone to remember “the reason for the season,” at Christmastime, and I’m far from embarrassed by the comparison (though we have more immediate reasons to connect the 4th day of July with this celebration than Christians do with December 25th).

The celebration of the 4th in modern America—and for some time longer, as far as I know—tends to center on the launching of fireworks, nominally in recollection of the battle commemorated in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and on the celebration of the flag itself.  While I have no deep problem with enjoying those symbols, I am impatient with the fact that the flag has become the center of that celebration, and the focus of American patriotism, as well as with the blind and thoughtless idea of American exceptionalism, especially in the era of “Make America Great Again,” and other such vacuous statements.  We have become a people that, on the surface, seem to think of America as exceptional for reasons of fate, or Divine Providence, or some other mere happenstance.  But if America is great, it is not great in any set of its current circumstances, but in the ideas upon which it was founded.

I encourage everyone to reread, on the occasion of the celebration of the birth of the United States of America, The Declaration of Independence, and preferably also the United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.  These are the ideas at the heart of what America really means, and if America is ever to achieve the greatness made possible by those ideas, in any durable and important way, it will need to do so by commitment to the principles there described.

The key sentence of the Declaration of Independence is the second one:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

These were revolutionary concepts, though they had their roots in the Enlightenment principle that the purpose of government is to serve the people governed.  In this they are very different from traditional “Judeo-Christian values” (despite those frequently being claimed as our government’s basis), for those ideas are inherently authoritarian and dogmatic, while those of America have more the character of the scientific method.  Governments are a means of solving problems, and must always, in principle, be open to revision and improvement.  This is perhaps the most important, the most crucial aspect of the Constitution:  not the famous division of powers, with its various checks and balances, excellent though those things are, but the idea that the Constitution is amenable to continual and constant revision and amendment, as new, hopefully better, ideas come to the fore.

The first ten such amendments are the Constitutional framers’ attempt to codify more fully the notion of “unalienable Rights,” as described by Jefferson in the Declaration, and are sensibly called The Bill of Rights.  They are the explicit statements that, no matter what expediency might seem to justify it, and even if a majority desire it, a government has no business infringing the rights of the citizens, even be it one individual whose rights would be infringed.

The very nature of American government, as it was founded, contradicts any notion of blind patriotism.  The nation, the law, the government, these are not ends in themselves, but are means to an end, and they serve the rights and well-being of the citizenry.  Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and when it fails to protect those governed, it is the right—many would say the duty—of the citizenry to make changes, for an infringement of the rights of any individual is a threat to the rights of every individual.

The United States is only great to the degree that it strives to live up to these ideals, which are still probably best expressed in its founding document.  This is what we should remember and celebrate on this anniversary of the birth of the nation:  not a flag, though the flag is nice; not a song, though the song is stirring; not fireworks, though they are fun, and the battle they recreate was no doubt impressive.  The United States of America is not a place, but an idea—the idea that government exists for the sake of the individual citizens of the country, not the other way around.  It is the duty of the government to protect and nurture the rights, the liberty, the pursuit of happiness of the people it serves, and dissent should not merely be allowed but is a fundamental duty.

Read the Declaration on this Independence Day.  Read the Bill of Rights.  Participate fully in your local, state, and federal government.  Vote.

And by all means, if you disagree with me (or with your government) feel free to say so and to do something about it.

Treat new laws like experiments

Some years ago, when I first read Carl Sagans’s The Demon-Haunted World, I encountered a notion that stuck in my mind and has grown more prominent as the years have passed.  This is the idea that laws, as made in a democracy, are a form of experiment, but that they are carried out without any of the sensible objective measures and controls that make scientific experiments so useful.  I think this is clearly true, and I think we should all try to petition our legislators to approach laws in this scientific fashion.

Many—perhaps most—new laws are proposed to prevent, or correct, or create some specific situation…presumably altering something that isn’t quite the way we want it to be.  Unfortunately, the way laws are proposed and assessed is through public debate—at best.  As civil and criminal courtrooms demonstrate, when an important matter is addressed mainly through debate, the outcome isn’t necessarily that the best or truest idea is chosen, but that those who are most skilled at rhetoric and manipulation rule the day.  This is not a much more reliable way to make good decisions than by holding a jousting match.  It’s not good in court, and it’s worse in the halls of legislature, where the quality of discourse is often even lower than one often finds among courtroom lawyers (“If the glove does not fit, you must acquit,” is at least mildly clever, as opposed to the appalling spectacle of an elected legislator in the Federal Government bringing a snowball into the Capitol Building as evidence against climate change).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, with every proposed new bill, the proposer had to articulate what problem was to be addressed by the legislation, and what result was being sought.  Then, in the subsequent discussions, legislators could better focus their inquiries, bringing existing information to bear, including the outcomes of prior, similar legislation.  Also—and here is a key point—each bill could contain specific language detailing by what means its relative success of failure would be measured, how that data would be collected, at what frequency it would be evaluated, and at what point—if ever—the measure would have been found to fail.  We know that most measures, if measured, would fail, based on the experience of science, in which the vast majority hypotheses end up disproven, even when proposed by the best and brightest minds in the world.  How much more likely is it that ideas proposed by the likes of our legislators are going to be shown to be ineffective?

Of course, the real world—the laboratory where each new law would be tested—is a messy place, with innumerable confounding variables, correlations which have nothing to do with causation, unreliable data, and so on.  So, we wouldn’t necessarily want to hold legislative outcome checks to quite the same standards of rigor as those to which we hold particle physics.  But simply requiring each new bill to contain a statement of hoped-for outcomes, of measures by which it would be considered to have succeeded or failed, and a required time of review, could produce better laws, influenced from the beginning by more information and logic than rhetoric.  Even if no definitive answer was available at the time of a planned review, that review might still inspire new ideas about how better to measure outcomes, and perhaps even ways to tweak a law to make its outcome more clearly beneficial.  Most importantly, it would be much easier to recognize and discard the failures.

Of course, to initiate such a policy of lawmaking would require something even more sweeping than a Constitutional amendment.  It would require that we elect representatives capable of bringing a scientific mindset to matters of fact.  This, in turn, would require a voting population with the ability to judge among and select such individuals, rather than the charlatans and hucksters they tend to elect.  This in turn would require both a change in the educational style of the country and a cultural shift in which we give greater precedence to logic and reason, rather than our usual approaches to life, which are only more sophisticated than those of chimpanzees in that they are more complicated, but which are not necessarily any more rational.*

It’s a tall order, I know.  But the possible improvements in our laws, in the way public policy is carried out, and in the general health and well-being of the nation would be potentially vast.

They would also be much more measurable.


*See last week’s post on teaching probability and statistics, for instance.